Can County Durham reach its economic potential

March 5, 2020

As the new decade gets underway, the land of the Prince Bishops is preparing to capitalise on a ‘once in a generation’ opportunity to transform its economy. Richard Dawson speaks to Sarah Slaven, managing director of Business Durham, about the various schemes in place to drive business investment across the county

County Durham is a place that has long been trying to come to terms with its position in the world after the closure of the mass employers of the Durham Coalfield, which drove its economy for many decades.

Today, the physical and economic landscape of Durham looks very different to how it looked at the height of old industry.

Over the years, the county has been carving out a new image of itself, firstly as a tourism destination, with its UNESCO World Heritage assets in the city centre, but more recently as a business destination, with a string of globally-significant businesses and industries spread across the area.

What do Hitachi Rail, GlaxoSmithKline, Northumbrian Water and Gestamp all have in common? Well, they’re big employers that have permanent bases in County Durham.

They’re also all operating in different industries, which is going to be crucial for the economic vitality of the county moving forward. For the North East generally, business diversity is just as important as business growth.

This is at the heart of Business Durham’s strategy for economic regeneration. Sarah Slaven, the organisation’s managing director, lists numerous developments being delivered across the county that will cater for a diverse range of inward investors and homegrown entrepreneurs.

From the Jade and Spectrum Business Parks, to NETPark, Aycliffe Business Park, Integra 61 and Aykley Heads Business Centre; Durham is making its voice heard in the marketplace in a big way.

The most recent of these developments, Jade Business Park, is preparing to welcome its first tenant after a collaboration between Business Durham and the North East Local Enterprise Partnership finally brought the Seaham site to fruition.

“Sumitomo has been announced as the first tenant there”, says Sarah. “They’re a wiring systems manufacturer for electric cars and a key supplier to Nissan. They needed a site to be able to expand their workforce.”

Jade is pitching itself as a premier location for distribution, technology and manufacturing companies looking to service their suppliers in the UK and internationally. In that sense, Jade offers combined elements of other business parks already in operation across County Durham.

Perhaps the most well-known of these is Aycliffe Business Park, not least because it’s where Hitachi Rail’s European headquarters are and where the trains, which serve the East Coast Mainline are assembled.

Aycliffe is actually the North East’s largest business park, spread across 400 hectares, and home to more than 500 businesses that employ around 10,000 people.

“Aycliffe Business Park is a really important driver for our economy and also for the Tees Valley and Darlington areas,” Sarah adds.

There’s also a thriving business community on the park, which is fostering a more collaborative environment where companies can work together to overcome common challenges.

Sarah explains: “There’s a private sector-led board there who regularly have networking events and there’s a lot more emphasis on peer-to-peer learning and how businesses can help themselves.

“It’s not about the public sector coming in to give them the answers, most businesses actually want to learn from each other. We’ve just helped to facilitate the kind of environment where that can happen.”

Another key location in the county is NETPark. Now in its 20th year, the Sedgefield science park has gone from strength-to-strength, attracting a number of innovative high-tech companies specialising in areas such as nanotechnology, x-ray, forensics and semi-conductor technology.

Sarah comments: “NETPark is a great example of where you’ve got to stick with your long-term vision.

“Creating a science park was all part of our drive to create higher-value, better-paid jobs if we’re going to change the nature of the county’s economy.”

NETPark was first made a reality through a collaboration with Durham University, whose Research Institute was the first building on site. Since then, CPI has set up shop there, as well as university spin-out turned global tech company Kromek and scores of other businesses with enormous growth potential.

As important as these sites are, the biggest opportunity for County Durham at the moment is at Aykley Heads Business Centre.

In a parkland setting just a few minutes’ walk from the train station and Durham city centre, Aykley Heads has the potential to attract more than 6000 jobs and deliver a £400 million boost to the local economy.

Already home to companies like business and IT consultancy Waterstons and Atom Bank, Aykley Heads is pitching itself to those companies with financial, banking and legal services to bring in high-quality jobs and maximise the site’s GVA potential.

The pitch is based on access to talent, which is an important draw for professional services firms.

“We’ve got the advantage of Durham University being on the doorstep,” says Sarah. “The question is, how do we really use that to attract businesses?”

Aykley Head’s Salvus House is also home to the Durham City Incubator, an initiative to attract, grow and retain graduate enterprise in the region.

Sarah explains: “It’s a six-month programme with a series of workshops, training and support.

“We have an incubator manager who works with the start-ups one-to-one. They get to be based at the offices here and get access to a start-up grant, as well as the possibility of investment funding through our relationship with Northstar Ventures.”

If all of the above wasn’t evidence enough of how County Durham is working intensively to reach its economic potential, there’s also a new £20 million investment fund called Finance Durham that’s already making an impact.

Sarah comments: “To date, we’ve invested about £4.3 million, which has actually brought businesses into the area who wouldn’t have looked at Durham otherwise.”

There’s also the County Durham Growth Fund, which is there to provide grants and de-risk investment for companies who might be holding back due to economic uncertainty, of which there’s been no shortage in recent months.

The topics covered in this article are just a snapshot of what’s going on in County Durham at the moment.

To really understand the progress being made, you’d have to go and see for yourself.

Business Durham

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